The Pittsburgh Steelers will play the New England Patriots Sunday night in Foxborough for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LI. Below are my seven primary keys for the AFC Championship game that the Steelers will more than likely need to accomplish if they are going to upset the Patriots in their own backyard.
Win Consistently With Four Or Less – The Steelers defense isn’t likely to have much success against the Patriots offense if they blitz a lot and Tom Brady’s numbers are evidence to support that. As the 2016 regular season progressed we saw the Steelers defense do a better job at consistently providing pressure with four or fewer pass rushers and that trend must continue in Sunday’s AFC Championship game.
Limit 1st Down Success – In the Steelers regular season loss to the Patriots their defense faced 26 legitimate 1st down plays and just over half of them were successful. The Steelers defense must have a higher stop percentage on first downs on Sunday in order to keep the Patriots behind the chains on second downs. The Patriots ran 17 times on 26 first down plays back in October and that’s likely to be a high percentage again on Sunday night.
Stop 3rd And Edelman – Since Week 13 of the regular season and on, the Patriots have been without tight end Rob Gronkowski. In those six games that includes their playoff win over the Houston Texans, Brady has converted 40 third down passes with 31 of them successfully moving the chains. Nearly half of those conversions, 14 to be exact, went to wide receiver Julian Edelman, so he’s obviously a player the Steelers defense needs to guard closely on that specific down during Sundays game.
Plus-Three In Explosive Play Battle – The Steelers offense will more than likely have to win the explosive play battle by three or more on Sunday in order to beat the Patriots. During the regular season, the Patriots defense allowed 56 plays of 20 yards or more while the Steelers defense gave up just 50 of them. It’s worth noting, however, that 53 of the 56 that the Patriots allowed came via the air. Of those 53, only 12 came via short passes that were thrown 15 or less yards past the line of scrimmage. In short, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will likely have to connect deep several times on Sunday in order for his offense to register some gains of 20 yards or more.
Air Bell – While the Steelers offense will obviously lean heavily on running back Le’Veon Bell as a ball carrier Sunday night, his best shot at delivering an explosive play or two will likely come through the air. Bell had a season high 10 receptions in the Steelers Week 7 loss to the Patriots and that was with Landry Jones at quarterback. I two career games against the Patriots, Bell has been targeted 23 times and he caught 14 of those passes for 133 yards. He’ll likely need another 5 or 6 catches for 50 or so yards Sunday night in addition to 90 or more yards on the ground in order for the Steelers to win the game. The Patriots, by the way, have not allowed a 90-yard rusher in 24 straight games and thus Bell will need some receiving yards on Sunday.
Capitalize On Short Fields And Takeaways – The last time the Steelers played the Patriots they failed to convert either of their two takeaways into points. The Patriots don’t turn the football over very often and thus any takeaways that the Steelers might achieve Sunday night in Foxborough absolutely must be capitalized on. The Steelers can create their own short fields in other ways and that includes a long kickoff or punt return in addition to maybe forcing the Patriots to go three and out deep in their own end of the football field. In all likelihood, the Steelers will lose Sunday night if they’re not able to start at least one offensive possession on the Patriots side of the 50-yard-line, or convert at least one potential takeaway into 7 points.
Win Penalty Battle – The Steelers committed 10 penalties in their Week 7 loss to the patriots and 8 of those came on the offensive side of the football. The Patriots, on the other hands, committed just four penalties in that game with three of them coming on offense. In a game of this magnitude against a well-coached team such as the Patriots, the Steelers can’t afford to lose the penalty battle and especially on offense as those usually result in killed drives.